Before we come to our reading, I want to start by setting the scene. It will be a familiar one I’m sure, from nativity plays and Christmas cards and carol services. Mary is a young woman who is engaged to be married, when an angel comes to her with a message. The power of the Most High will overshadow her, and she will conceive and bear a son. He will be called the Son of God, and his kingdom will know no end. It must have been the last thing she expected to hear when she got up that morning, and yet she responds “let it be with me according to your word”. I believe that response is important, because I believe it was necessary.
There is something really troubling about the idea that God would simply announce a pregnancy and then make Mary bear a child without her wish or consent, but I think it is vital that Mary has a voice and I think it is significant that the angel’s words are in the future tense. God has a plan, but Mary has to say yes to it before it actually happens.
That Mary has agency is made clear when she hurries to her cousin Elizabeth, who is now six months into an angel-promised pregnancy of her own. The child she carries is to become John the Baptist, and he begins his ministry of announcing Jesus early by leaping in the womb as Mary arrives. Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit, and she rejoices that the mother of her Lord has come to greet her. Mary stays with Elizabeth for three months, which raises the possibility that she supported her through the final months of her pregnancy and was there when John was born.
Both of these women have been promised miraculous babies, and they both appear to have very active spiritual lives. They listen to and respond to God through the prompting of angels and the Spirit, and yet they still seek very human reassurance with one another. There is something really tender in this relationship and the comfort it brings, especially as searching for an image of ‘Elizabeth and Mary’ reminded me that it stands in stark contrast to the rather more murderous relationship between the royal cousins that shared their names. We should never underplay the mystery at the heart of the Christmas story, but we shouldn’t forget the humanity either.
It is while staying with Elizabeth that Mary speaks the words which have come to be known as Mary’s Song or the Magnificat, the latter taken from the first word in the Latin translation. The public reading of these words has been banned at several points in history, by oppressors who feared that they would encourage rebellion among the people. Remember that as you hear them, and pay attention to their radical nature.
Luke 1:46-55 (NIV)
And Mary said: “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me—holy is his name. His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors.”
I have always loved the hymn Tell Out My Soul, although I admit that it was only fairly recently that I realised it was based on the Magnificat. Perhaps that’s because I wasn’t really very familiar with Mary’s song. I once managed to go to five Christmas services in three days, so I must have heard it read at some point, but I don’t remember Mary ever getting a solo in any of the nativities I took part in. And I know now that it is part of the liturgical tradition of many of the major Christian denominations, but it is mostly tucked away in evening prayer, so even my Anglican childhood didn’t familiarise me with it. And so it was that these joyful and radical words came to me as something of a revelation a few years ago.
It was around the same time that I first saw Ben Wildflower’s wonderful print of the Magnificat, which shows Mary standing on a serpent with her fist raised, surrounded by the words “cast down the mighty - send the rich away - fill the hungry - lift the lowly”. This is Mary as revolutionary leader, her song a call to take part in a radical reordering of the world . I also love Ally Barrett’s painting, which imagines Mary as a Black woman showing her strength in the style of Rosie the Riveter, surrounded by the words of the Magnificat in Greek. I find these images utterly compelling, portraying a Mary who is far more than a passive vessel. This is the Mary who said yes to the incarnation and knew a sword would pierce her soul. This is the Mary who cornered Jesus into his first miracle and stood by him at the cross. This is the Mary who sees the future that is promised and knows what it will take to get there. I don’t know about you, but I want to roll up my sleeves and throw myself into the revolution beside her.
Mary stands in a long tradition of singing women, perhaps most notably Miriam and Hannah. After Moses led the Israelites through the Red Sea, his sister Miriam led the women in singing and dancing. And after her long awaited son and future kingmaker Samuel was born, Hannah sang in praise and thanksgiving. Hannah’s song is particularly interesting here, not only because of its connection to another miraculous son, but because of its similarity to Mary’s. She sings “The bows of mighty warriors are shattered, but those who were stumbling now dress themselves in power! Those who were filled now sell themselves for bread, but the ones who were starving are now fat from food!” There is the same sense of a world turned upside down that we find in the Magnificat, which reminds us that God has always been in the business of renewal and reversal. Perhaps Mary knew Hannah’s words from the scriptures, and turned to a familiar song to remind her of who God is and who she is. Or perhaps she similarly recognised that God was at work in a way that would not just change her life, but would transform the world as she knew it.
An interesting grammatical feature of the Magnificat is that the Greek is in the aorist tense, which expresses what is timelessly true. It stands in the past and the present and the future without differentiation. Mary is so confident that God will establish a kingdom of justice and peace that this future vision is described as having already been realised. She introduces us to the now and not yet of the kingdom of God, which in some ways has always been and in others ways arrived with Christ and in more ways is still coming to be. Mary is not often described as a prophet, but I believe she should be. Matt Skinner describes prophecy as “making sense of God in our current circumstances and in the light of a bigger existing understanding of who God is”, and the Magnificat is certainly a prophetic song, revealing and rejoicing in who God is and what God is doing in our world and in our lives.
Karoline Lewis says that “Mary is our model, our example, our witness, our sister who voices for us a pattern of Christmas expectancy and Christmas response. She embodies our Christmas feelings, our Christmas questions, our Christmas ponderings, not only in response to the time leading up to Christmas but also in our post-Christmas reality.” Perhaps you don’t feel that kind of connection to Mary, and that’s okay because we will all enter into and make sense of the Christmas story in different ways, but she does hold a special place for me. She is both completely ordinary and utterly extraordinary, fearful and faithful, joyful and radical. When I think that the example of Christ sets the bar impossibly high, I look at Mary and am assured that we can come pretty close.
Let’s come back again to Mary’s words before we draw our thoughts to a close. In my prophetic imagination, Mary sang the Magnificat to Jesus as a lullaby, and I wonder how it would shape and transform us if it held the same place in our own lives and worship. Jane Schaberg and Sharon Ringe describe it as “the great New Testament song of liberation - personal and social, moral and economic - a revolutionary document of intense conflict and victory...precious to women and other oppressed people for its vision of their concrete freedom from systemic injustice.” God chooses a nobody from nowhere, and in her song we hear that God works with the nameless and the poor and the marginalised. This is where God’s good news will be manifest and so it is where we need to be, bringing down the mighty and sending the rich away, not to punish or destroy them but so that together we might fill the hungry and lift the lowly. This season of Advent, let us not just prepare for the birth of a child, but for the birth of a new world.